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The Johnson Treatment

For the last four years, Richard Johnson has cut quite a figure at City Hall as chief of staff for District B Councilman Michael Yarbrough.

At the weekly Council meetings, Johnson parks his impeccably dressed, six-foot five-inch, 230-pound body just behind Yarbrough. With his arms crossed and his face void of expression, Johnson looks as if he's ready to catch a bullet for his boss.

Since taking a leave of absence from the city to run for an at-large Council seat --he faces Position 4 incumbent Chris Bell in the December 6 runoff --Johnson has tried to appear less imposing. But with eight years in the U.S. Army on his resume, the makeover has proved difficult. Even Johnson's professional pursuits away from City Hall seem to be shaped by his experiences as a soldier.

A licensed chemical-dependency counselor, Johnson is founder and president of the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy, a strictly regimented program for teenage substance abusers that emphasizes military-style discipline and individual responsibility. One of three treatment programs housed at the Barbara Jordan Recovery Center in the Fifth Ward, the Golden Eagle is funded by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, or TCADA, to run a 30-bed in-patient program for boys ages 13 through 17.

But according to current and former staff members and residents and parents of residents, the taxpayer-funded academy has another purpose --to recruit African-American youths into the MFOI, an organization formed by Quanell X, the Golden Eagle's program director and a former youth minister with the local Nation of Islam mosque.

Moreover, at least one teenage resident of the Golden Eagle and two parents of former residents have written letters of complaint to TCADA, alleging that white and Hispanic youngsters in the program have been physically abused by MFOI members. While none of the half-dozen or so residents interviewed by the Press for this story said they've been subjected to an assault at the Golden Eagle, they all professed to be familiar with what's known inside the facility as a "blanket party."

"Usually, it happens after somebody messes up," says one boy who is still a resident of the academy. "Sometimes they lock us down, put us in our rooms and then do it, or they wait until most of the other kids are off the unit."

Allegations of abuse and intimidation at the Golden Eagle have also reached the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, which refers adolescent probationers with drug and alcohol problems to local treatment programs. More than a year ago, the department stopped sending its probationers to the Golden Eagle after complaints about the facility, and Quanell X in particular, began to mount.

"All of our kids have identified [Quanell] as being the instigator of racially based retaliations," says executive director Elmer Bailey. "And we established quite a while back that there were very well-founded complaints against specific staff members. It's a community-based agency, so we tell families about the facility. But we do not place the children in our custody there any longer."

As described by Quanell X, the MFOI --which stands for Mental Freedom Obtains Independence --is a "paramilitary" organization for young African-American males formed to combat police brutality and other manifestations of white oppression. As on-site director of the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy, Quanell is in daily contact with any number of blacks kids who, in the tradition of Malcolm X, could decide to quit drugs and alcohol, accept the teachings of Allah and dedicate their lives to saving the black man.

But parents of Anglo and Hispanic residents say the Golden Eagle offers little for their sons other than an opportunity to "dry out." The quality of treatment is poor, they say, and the all-black staff indifferent. Meanwhile, all the residents, who attend an HISD alternative school on-site, are enveloped in an Afrocentric environment saturated with the culture of the Nation of Islam, whose leaders, from Malcolm X to Louis Farrakhan, have denounced white people as devils.

"On the anniversary of the Million Man March," recalls one recently discharged resident, a 16-year-old Anglo boy, "the black kids were allowed to skip school. Mr. X told us we had to go to school because of what our ancestors did."

Richard Johnson initially agreed to be interviewed for this story by the Press and suggested a breakfast meeting at the Wyndham Warwick Hotel. But he failed to show for the appointment, and he did not respond to subsequent repeated calls to his pager number and to his campaign headquarters. Likewise, the Press was unsuccessful in trying to reach Quanell X at the Barbara Jordan Recovery Center and through the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy's corporate offices.

That would come as no surprise to the parents of residents who spoke with the Press. They say that they, too, have been unable to find out exactly what goes on inside the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy.

 

"It took me a week to get a hold of my son's counselor," says the mother of one white resident who recently got into a fight after exchanging racial epithets with a black youth. "I'm getting no information -- none -- and when something happens, they don't call me."

The Golden Eagle Leadership Academy is the successor to the Institute of Healthy Families & Community, which in 1991 began operating out of what was then known as the Recovery Campus of Houston. Last year, the campus was rechristened the Barbara Jordan Recovery Center. It remains an arm of the University of Texas Health Science Center, which doles out funding from TCADA to subcontractors who run the center's treatment programs.

In late 1993, shortly after he was elected to City Council, Yarbrough and his chief of staff Johnson joined the Institute's board of directors. Johnson eventually became board president, and in late 1994 or early 1995, he hired Quanell X to implement a military-style treatment program.

A tireless self-promoter, Quanell drew national attention in October 1995 for comments he made at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Speaking to a Chicago Tribune reporter, Quanell advised American Jews to "knuckle up, put your boots on, because we're ready and the war is going down." Prior to the November 4 referendum on the city's affirmative-action program for minority and women contractors, Quanell warned white voters they could expect trouble -- perhaps even violence -- if the program were rejected.

While his credentials as a revolutionary are well-established, staff members who have worked alongside Quanell X say he knows little about treating substance abuse. Shortly after he took charge of the Institute of Healthy Families, there was a spate of ugly incidents at the facility -- at least one of which was the subject of a complaint filed by an Anglo counselor with TCADA in 1995.

"Quanell had a group of young men that he called his 'lieutenants,' " recalls a former staffer who left the Institute about a year and a half ago. "When we would have kids on the unit who were acting out, he would give orders to his lieutenants to go in and beat up on these kids."

The former staff member says that "some of the things Quanell was espousing" led to a brawl between Institute residents and clients of a similar program on the Recovery Campus run by the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. Some of the 15 or so youths involved in the fracas required medical treatment.

Such allegations of violence led Elmer Bailey to stop sending juvenile probationers to the Institute. Bailey says he notified both program administrators and TCADA about the complaints he received.

"I thought they would figure this deal out, and we'd be back in business with them," Bailey says. "As it's turned out, they didn't and we're not. There's been no change, to my knowledge."

According to former members of the Institute staff, neither TCADA nor the University of Texas Health Science Center were inclined to take action --despite the history of trouble at the facility. "I know they knew what was going on," says a former administrator at the Institute. "But TCADA and UT didn't appear to want to get involved."

Lisa Hernandez of TCADA's sanctions department acknowledges that the state agency investigated allegations of client abuse at the Institute on two occasions in 1996, but says that "no action was taken." A third investigation was launched earlier this year, but the specific allegation that triggered it is "confidential" for now, Hernandez says.

Nonetheless, the state has proven itself generous with Johnson's program. On September 1, the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy -- after changing its name from the Institute of Healthy Families & Community -- received $565,752 in state funds through UT for fiscal year 199798.

Golden Eagle was not required by the state to submit a budget detailing how the money would be spent. Instead, it was given an extension of the Institute of Healthy Families & Community's 199697 contract --even though, according to TCADA, the Institute has been ruled ineligible to receive state money until it produces an audit of its 199596 operations.

The Institute received roughly $460,000 that year. According to a one-page "budget worksheet" provided to the Press by UT, more than 80 percent of that funding -- almost $380,000 --was set aside for employee salaries and benefits. Just $9,133 was earmarked for direct costs of residents, including a mere $1,333 for food. By way of comparison, a total of $9,173 was budgeted for office supplies, meals and entertainment and travel expenses.

 

It should be noted that Richard Johnson was the treasurer of at least one of Michael Yarbrough's election campaigns. The councilman has made a habit of failing to file timely campaign-finance reports, as required by state law. Among the reports that Yarbrough has yet to submit is the one that was due in January 1996.

At the time, undercover FBI agents posing as investors were dangling bribes before councilmembers who were preparing to award a $155-million contract to build a convention center hotel. Johnson, who has not been implicated, was the only Council aide called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the bribery allegations. Earlier this year, Yarbrough was one of six people indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges resulting from the FBI sting. This week, both Yarbrough and Johnson were charged with misdemeanor campaign reporting violations.

The troubling allegations of abuse and racial bias at the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy further muddy a campaign that's already been defined by the color of the candidates' skins.

Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Johnson urged African-American voters to help him "take back" the Position 4 seat, which, prior to Bell's victory in a special election earlier this year, had been held by John Peavy, Sheila Jackson Lee and Anthony Hall -- all of whom are black.

After Johnson advanced into a runoff with Bell, the councilman accused Johnson of "playing the race card" for his alleged role as an architect of an all-black "slate" for the November 4 election.

Johnson denied having anything to do with the slate and implied that Bell -- who has been endorsed by such African-American officials as Councilman Jew Don Boney and state Representative Garnet Coleman -- was himself a racist.

On the campaign trail, Johnson makes much of his refusal to take contributions from special-interest PACs while accusing Bell of cozying up to such contributors as the Houston Contractors Association, which supported Proposition A, the anti-affirmative action initiative that voters rejected on November 4.

At a recent candidates forum, Johnson pounded the dais with a bundle of campaign-finance reports filed by Bell, whose support of the city's affirmative action program is well-documented. Pointing out that Bell's campaign had taken money from the same contractors who want to end affirmative action, Johnson called his opponent "a wolf in sheep's clothing." Given his business relationship with Quanell X, Johnson might want to reconsider that guilty-by-association strategy.


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